The money behind GOP’s meager House pickups

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Congressman-elect Jim Hagedorn is one of the two Minnesota Republicans to flip formerly-blue seats. (om Williams/CQ Roll Call)

In mid-October, conservative outside groups shifted their focus, abandoning a handful of GOP House candidates that would go on to lose their races.

The biggest pro-GOP super PACs instead set their sights on the open Minnesota 1st and 8th District seats, considered the only pickup opportunities for Republicans in a cycle dominated by House Democrats.

Boosted by a late influx of media buys from outside groups, Republicans won in both races, taking seats formerly occupied by Democrats. Liberal groups were caught napping, spending next to nothing in the leadup to the election on the battleground races.

In the 1st District, former U.S. Treasury official Jim Hagedorn beat Democrat Dan Feehan, a veteran and former Pentagon official, by roughly 1,300 votes. Hagedorn was outraised $3.6 million to $1.4 million, but he got the bulk of outside spending support during the final stretch.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) spent more than $3.8 million in media to aid Feehan in the race, but its final media buy of $126,405 came on Oct. 9.

Between Oct. 9 and election day, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), Congressional Leadership Fund (CLF), America First Action (AFA) coordinated on a series of attack ads against Feehan, spending a combined $3.8 million in less than a month.

Feehan was supported by a sprinkling of digital and radio ads in that time frame by MoveOn and the Alliance for Retired Americans, but nothing from major party-aligned groups. The NRCC spent more than $3.4 million in opposition to Feehan, making him its fifth-most targeted candidate this cycle. AFA spent $1.7 million against Feehan, third-most of any House candidate.

AFA’s most popular target was 8th District candidate Joe Radinovich — former campaign manager for retiring 8th District Rep. Rick Nolan — who fell to Republican Pete Stauber, a county commissioner and retired police lieutenant. The group spent nearly $3.3 million in opposition to Radinovich,who was also hit by $3.9 million from CLF.

Democratic groups didn’t fight back, spending $2.1 million to conservative groups’ $7.5 million and seemingly sacrificing the seat while they focused on other races.

The 8th District election result was closer than the spending battle, with Stauber winning by 5.5 points.

Technically, the GOP had three pickups in 2018, with its final win coming in Pennsylvania’s 14th District. The seat was redistricted by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court from a safe blue seat to a safe red seat.

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